My current institution has adopted Moodle as its institutional LMS as of 2010. Due to my role, I haven’t really had to think about how you best go about designing a Moodle course. Now, however, due to the curriculum mapping project it is likely that I am going to have to engage with this. Hence the question, what are the different principles, guidelines or approaches for designing a Moodle course site?

Why do you ask?

A part of the aim of the curriculum mapping project is to map the alignment of course activities, resources and assessment against graduate attributes, learning outcomes etc. At the moment, the project is at the stage of experimenting with existing Moodle courses – course sites that are live now – and seeing how well (or not) Moodle’s existing outcomes support can be used for this mapping purpose.

I’m only looking at a very small number of courses, however, these are courses put together by academics who care about their teaching, who want to make an effort. From this small sample it appears that, as they stand, the design of these course sites will not easily enable the clear mapping of the activities, resources and assessments against outcomes. It’s clear that the design of these courses is very different, and that’s in spite of the the institution paying some lip service to consistency of experience for the students (which is misguided I think as in the end it only results in superficial consistency and more importantly fails to engage with a key characteristic of learning and teaching – it’s diversity).

It appears that, in order for the curriculum mapping project to fully enable the mapping of activities, resources and assessments against outcomes etc, it will need to make recommendations for better course design.

Which raises the question, what is good course design in Moodle?

What are some of the possibilities?

From one perspective, it is important that this be specifically about Moodle, and not e-learning or LMS course site design in general. Moodle, like any technology, provides a set of affordances, a set of strengths and weaknesses. To get the most out of Moodle, like any technology, the design needs to be aware of the Moodle sweet spot, and its weak spots.

Moodle principles

There are some things that really work in Moodle. What are they?

An obvious place to turn is the principles underpinning Moodle itself, which are:

  1. We are all potential teachers as well as learners
  2. We learn a lot by watching others.
  3. We learn well by creating and expressing for others
  4. Understanding others transforms us.
  5. We learn well when the learning environment is flexible and adaptable to suit our needs.

Aside: would be interesting to map the content of courses with these 5 principles and find out how many follow them in some way. I think there would be surprisingly few. Following this evolution over time might be interesting as well. Do people become more informed about Moodle course design over time? Or, do they simply follow the same path they established for their first course?

Course structure or organisation

It’s my perception that the design of Moodle course sites is intended to be a sequence of sections which contain activities for students to complete. It’s interesting that one of the major “innovations” at my current institution is a “course design” that, to at least some extent, breaks this structure.

Rather than a long vertical collection of sections for each week, there is one section which breaks the course site up into a course synopsis and 5 horizontal sections – The course, resources, discussions, assessment and enquiries (which probably change depending on the course).

The courses not taking this approach seem to follow the same approach. One section as “About the course” – usually with a banner and general administration stuff – followed by the weekly sections. The content of those weekly sections is wildly different.

In part, the difference here seems to be between having lots of scrolling or not. A more typical Moodle design ends up with a couple of pages of scrolling. I’m hearing some positive responses from staff/students about the scrolling.

Is there research to see how it is received? Does the scrolling thing cause problems or benefits?

Look and feel

We’re superficial, something that looks good will often result in more immediate positive feelings, even though it’s a pain to use. A fair bit of the Moodle promotion stuff seems focused on showing that Moodle can be good looking. Even though most institutional Moodles appear to focus on consistency, rather than quality.

Learning design

More abstractly, a good course design should obviously – following the theory of alignment – be driven by the learning outcomes. With activities, resources and assessments chosen and presented in a way that best achieves those outcomes.

So, where are the good examples of good, constructively aligned Moodle course sites? What were the problem in achieving those designs?

The blended kitchen sink

One important question for the curriculum mapping project is whether or not the course site captures everything that all students experience. Where face-to-face is possible, it would appear obvious that there may well be some experiences that students have which are not captured in the course site. This suggests it won’t be captured in the mapping.

Should/can a course site contain everything, or just the online stuff?


So, what say you? What are the other principles? What is out there that can inform answers to this question?

Where are the design exemplars for Moodle course sites?

At this point I’ll include a quote attributed to Stephen Downes from here

What makes e-learning effective is, of course, typically in the eye of the beholder. One person’s toast and jam may be another person’s steak and kidney pie. This is what makes the drafting of a set of guidelines for effective e-learning so difficult.

Which is just one reason why I think “one ring to rule them all” corporate approaches to web course design is a big mistake.

It’s also the reason why input from many is needed.

Suggestions from Google

Some suggestions from Google follow. Only did a single, quick search.

  • Blog post describing some alternate course formats for Moodle – related to the course structure/organisation heading above.
  • Moodle course design – a word document with good coverage of the topic
    Interesting, makes the point that a consistent theme “gives it robustness”. I like the Dave Snowden distinction between robustness and resilience. Robustness tries to prevent mistakes/failure – which with people is itself destined to fail. Whereas resilience makes it cheap to respond/solve mistakes/failure. I know which I prefer.

    For similar reasons the document advises against messing with the standard Moodle design – which is what the local “innovation” does.